It's a bizarre feeling when an inside joke—not even necessarily your inside joke, but an inside joke you adopted—suddenly becomes fodder for trend pieces. Suddenly something you thought was behind you—that you may not have ascribed to so simply, or at least been able to describe to a reporter—is back out there, for all to ridicule. That's what happened when I saw the piece on so-called "SWUGs" over at New York's The Cut today.
SWUG, for the uninitiated, is a self-aware label meaning "Senior Washed-Up Girl." At its most basic level the phrase refers to female college seniors, who, with one foot out the door, simply "don't give a fuck." The pre-SWUG cares about the impressions she makes; the SWUG aims low. It's a term popular at Yale (my alma mater) that pissed me off at first, but which I came to embrace, only to watch it become yet another way for writers on the Internet (not unlike me) to talk about the state of young women today, which is apparently the age of endless "leaning in." Following a piece in the Yale Daily News by Raisa Bruner (full disclosure: a friend), New York's Justin Rocket Silverman went to Yale to investigate this alleged trend, only to have most commenters savage it, some argue that the "trend" was nothing new, others insult the women in the story, and Yalies on social media generally roll their eyes at the whole thing.
I first heard about the term SWUG during my junior year when I was working at the Daily News. From what I can recall, it was described to me as having been coined by a group of girls in the senior class, and I hated it. Yale had been debating treatment of women on campus all year—the school was about to face a Title IX investigation—and the idea of calling any girls on campus "washed-up" was to me offensive and demeaning (the specific words I used in a heated Gchat conversation), even if some fellow women had used the label on themselves.
But I changed my mind on SWUGs as I sort of realized I was one. Looking back through my Gmail inbox today, I crossed into my senior year, when, for me and my friends, SWUG came to be a way we described an attitude that we already possessed. SWUG meant getting meatball subs on a snowy night. SWUGs watched an episode of New Girl twice in a row with a lot red wine. SWUGs baked brownies. In our version of SWUG, an idol might be Liz Lemon, to whom Jack Donaghy once said: "Big night, Lemon? Let me guess meatball sub extra, bottle of NyQuil, TiVo Top Chef, a little miss Bonnie Raitt, lights out." My fellow would-be SWUGs and I listened to a lot of "I Can't Make You Love Me." We cared about our academics and our future careers, but when it came to our social lives in the confines of Yale, well, we, as seniors, couldn't care less.
Like so many other generalizations rooted in reality, a SWUG is complicated because there is, hard as trend pieces might try, no single definition. There is no one type of SWUG. Just look at the conflicting Daily News columns that attempted to bring SWUG into public light. For some it means being the last one at the party. For others it means not going to the party at all. There's something inherently negative about being "washed-up," and yet something positive about self-labeling. Much described in Bruner and Silverman's pieces was not the SWUGdom which which I became familiar during my senior year. I didn't go to frat parties, didn't ever really care about hooking up. But Bruner closes her piece by looking at the term as a sort of catch-all for a female bonding that can happen when you're closing out an important section of your life.
In his take in New York, Silverman writes as if that might go away, or that it never really existed:
Of course, the SWUGs aren’t actually washed up. Three months from now, they will be the bright-eyed newcomers in New York or Los Angeles, the 22-year-olds dancing on banquettes in nightclubs, who still drink too much and still flirt with boys. They’ll go from envying freshmen girls to being the envy of older women. That dayger at Sigma Nu is going to feel very far away.
Maybe I wasn't truly a SWUG, but I couldn't have had a different post-grad experience.
Back at actual Yale, Bruner questioned whether she, as a feminist, should be embracing the term SWUG, even though, by some standards, the throwing-caution-to-the-wind attitude is exactly what modern feminism looks like: "Whatever empowerment we're supposed to be deriving from this version of the feminist moment is looking pretty thin on the ground." She wonders whether SWUG is a response to an older generation's focus—hello, Princeton Mom!—on getting married at the end of college: "Is SWUG-ness a response to that — a way to deal with biological insecurities and to rebel against society's traditional expectations of women? A fuck-'em-all, let's-do-what-matters-to-us kind of attitude that has nothing to do with the images of lackluster sex and desperate partying that it’s grown to encompass?" That's more of the SWUG I knew, and what happened to matter to my SWUGs was snuggling up with our Netflix accounts.
For me it's amusing that SWUG has moved beyond the joke phase into the trend story phrase, something that I thought I knew pretty intimately, repackaged by someone like Silverman for a broad audience, open for ridicule, and ultimately misinterpreted. You can blame Sunday Styles or New York or Sheryl Sandberg for the trend stories. Just don't blame my meatball sub.